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Review- “Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World”- a MUST SEE exhibit at the Getty Center


Leticia Marie Sanchez

Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World

Getty Center, Los Angeles

14 May – 18 Aug 2019 

LionsLions, from a bestiary, around 1250. Tempera colors on parchment. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Ms. Bodl. 764. Fol 2V

What makes the Getty stand out from other American museums is its ability to consistently execute transportive, immersive artistic experiences for museum goers. Whether it is the art of ancient Egypt or works from the Middle Ages, the Getty takes audiences through a visual time machine to an all encompassing world.

Medieval starcase 4 article

The vibrant outdoor staircase leading to Book of Beasts heralds the magical, fantastical creatures that we are about to see. Inside the exhibit are more than one hundred works depicting the Medieval Bestiary, an Encyclopedia of animals that proved to be one of the most popular illuminated texts in northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Curated by Elizabeth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum with Larisa Grollemond, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, the exhibit includes illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass, ivories, and metalwork.

The fantastical creatures include Griffins, Dragons, Bonnacons, Lynx, Sirens, Centaurs, and Sea Serpents. No creature is more central to this exhibit, however, than the Unicorn, which Dr. Morrison referred to as a “Medieval Meme” because the image was so widely recognizable to audiences at the time. The bestiary interprets this creature, usually portrayed alongside a Virgin, as a symbol for Christ, who was born to a virgin. The medieval hunters attacking the unicorn represent Christ’s death and Crucifixion.

Unicorn from Ashmole

To the left: Unicorn from Ashmole Bestiary (text in Latin), English, about 1210-1220, artist unknown. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Ms. Ashmole 1511, fol. 14v

While at the exhibit, make sure to look closely at the pages of the manuscripts which vastly differ from Biblical texts due to the density of images per page. For instance, medieval Biblical texts only contain one image per page, while the Bestiary overflows with images. Most exciting to see are the moments in the Bestiary when the text and the images begin overlapping, a dynamic representation of unstoppable inspiration.

Finally, the last section of the Bestiary- the Legacy of the Bestiary- demonstrates the immense impact that the medieval bestiary has had on the works of modern and contemporary artists including Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Claire Owen, and Damien Hirst.


Do not miss Kate Clark’s Pray, an unsettling, yet compelling modern fusion of animal and beast.

At left: Pray, 2012, Kate Clark, antelope hide and horns, foam, clay, pins, thread, and rubber eyes. Collection of Chet Robachinski and Jerry Slipman. © Kate Clark

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's ArkWalking through the various rooms of the exhibit, whether looking at Walton Ford’s Grifo de California, the illustrated texts of Apollinaire, or the sumptuous painting of Jan Brueghel the Elder, the influence of the Book of Beasts has been profound.

At Left: The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark; Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 – 1625); 1613 Oil on panel; Object Number: 92.PB.82; 54.6 × 83.8 cm (21 1/2 × 33 in.) 

Posted by on May 19th, 2019

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